I want to challenge anyone reading this to take what I am going to call “The Context Challenge.” Over the next few days, think about all of your interactions. Consider all your comments, suggestions, decisions, and conversations—whether actual conversations, or emails and texts—and ask yourself if you are considering your response from the vantage point of the other person’s current situation. Are you taking into account their thoughts and feelings, their filters and biases, and their judgment? In other words, whatever your response to a given situation is, are you putting it into context? Are you acknowledging and recognizing the other person’s sense of “context.”
This word, context, has been rattling around in my head and coming up in my thought processes for about a week now. Through many situations, I have asked myself, Is this out of context? Which of course got me doing some heady thinking about what context really means, and how it impacts our ability to respond and make decisions. And it also sent me to my trusty Webster’s to find an exact definition.
The parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context.
Why is this important? I’ll tell you…
I was in a meeting last week where a C-level executive got onto a VP of Sales for not returning a call. What I knew at the time (and I wasn’t sure the C-level exec knew) was that the VP’s wife was in the hospital, in and out of the ICU, and that this situation might make the guy a bit off his game.
So, after the meeting, I went up to the executive and asked him to give the VP a grace card because of the situation with his wife (and in the back of my mind, I was thinking about the word context and how it might impact the executive’s decision to chew the guy out.) To my surprise, the executive said, “There is no excuse for a sales guy to not return a call.”
Although the statement seems accurate, is it in context? Given the situation, what time frame is appropriate? Does that mean within 24 hours, or is a few days acceptable?
Then my mind started racing because this executive and I agree that the call should be returned, but we are on totally different planes about the timing. But even this made me think about context—about the whole process of creating our own personal sense of bias and judgment.
For me personally, my filter is give the guy a grace card, say a prayer for him and his wife, and let it be. My colleague is no slacker at all, so I felt he would get the job done. But, who wouldn’t need a little bit of understanding when faced with such a difficult personal situation to deal with.
To be fair, neither way of handling this is right or wrong. It just comes down to the interpretation of context, and the personal filter, or bias, through which you view that context. It is apparent, to me anyway, that our personal filter, which most certainly is biased and in the end judgmental, can be a help or hindrance, depending on how you choose to view the context of a situation.
So as I continued through my week, I looked for examples of activity that was either in or out of context, based (of course) on my personal bias and filter. One particular day, it dawned on me that my entire day of making decisions could be considered out of context, because all I did was make quick decisions, without much thought, mostly to check items off my list. When I came to this conclusion, I went the opposite direction. I went old school—with phone calls and meetings seeking to find the beginning and the end of the story before making a decision or judgment.
It was fascinating to me, how much longer and how time consuming it is trying to keep everything in context. But, it felt good. It seemed to make everything relational. I enjoyed exploring other people’s opinions fully. In fact, I think that exploring another’s definition of context is worth the effort, but I had to mine deeply for it, and that took time. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of time, especially when there is pressure to make a decision.
Maybe in the end, my personal judgment, along with all my filters and biases, is simply relational by nature. Maybe it will always outmaneuver and win over speed and endlessly checking the boxes off a list.
But if email replaced phone calls because it’s quick, short and instant, and now texting is beginning to replace email because we can’t take the time to draft a complete email… Just a thought, but I’m sure you can see where this is going. With so few words, a quick read and an even quicker response, (and emojis now replacing words) how can anything we say ever develop context? Ohh, myy!
So I’m going to ask you, are you making decisions “out of context” because it is quick and easy to check a box and move on? Do you take the time to understand the beginning, the middle, and the end of the decision making? Are you taking into consideration the context of comments someone might make? Do you realize that when analyzing context, you are filtering through your own biases, while at the same time, developing a relationship with the person that you are interacting with, because you are asking for the full story? Are you careful to accumulate enough information to make sure that even though you both come with your own biases, the decision is made in context.
That Sales VP I mentioned earlier will never forget that, in contrast to my colleague who decided to take a strong stand, I was willing to take his situation into account, and give him a grace card.
So, the “Context Challenge” is now in your possession, and I hope you use it to determine what works best for you and everyone you interact with. In the end, my personal filter says that I believe the seekers of context will be perceived as more caring, more supportive. Ultimately, they could get more accomplished through their understanding of context than the speedy, check-off-the-boxes, just-get-it-done, text-it-to-me-nows out there. It will certainly be interesting to observe.
Context Challenge On—